BETWEEN 1910 and 1970 tens of thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their families in a failed assimilation programme that wanted to “breed the colour” out of them. Ten years ago the then-prime minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to these “Stolen Generations”, and Australians gathered in their thousands to hear him promise that the gap between aboriginals and other Australians would be closed. Shortly afterwards, Mr Rudd’s Labor government adopted “Closing the Gap” targets to make good on that pledge. But a recent report shows that of seven goals, focusing on employment, health and education, only three are likely to be met. It provided an uncomfortable reminder of how immiserated aboriginals still are. Their health is poorer than that of people in many developing countries; they die about a decade earlier than other Australians, a chasm that is growing wider. A national representative for Australia’s indigenous people calls the progress “shameful”. Why is it so slow? 

Aboriginals, like indigenous populations elsewhere in the world, have contended with a gruesome history of discrimination. They have been murdered and dispossessed. They were denied rights in Australia’s founding constitution, received the vote only in 1962, and for decades saw their children taken away. That trauma reverberates today, in high levels of violence, alcoholism and drug use. There are some signs of progress: the child mortality rate, for example, declined by 35% between 1998 and 2016, and 91% of toddlers are now enrolled in early learning centres. But overall targets have not been met on school attendance, literacy and numeracy. The employment rate for aboriginals is below 50%, whereas other Australians it is over 70%.

Campaigners blame political instability—Australia has churned through four prime ministers in eight years—and funding cuts. One review said that any hope of closing the gap was in effect “abandoned” when A$530m ($415m) was slashed from the indigenous-affairs budget in 2014. But it is also a question of how the money is spent. Around A$130 billion has been funnelled towards aboriginals since the targets were launched, but with meagre results. Welfare payments are criticised for deterring work and bankrolling addictions. And the cash allocated to exclusively aboriginal programmes is often spent badly, with little evaluation. Too little goes to indigenous organisations, which tend to lose out to the big NGOs in competitive tendering processes. Aboriginal leaders get frustrated by their lack of involvement in the crafting of policies that affect their communities. Indigenous populations in other countries have their own parliaments or an allocation of seats within the national parliament, and some live under their own laws. Australian aboriginals get no such recognition.

The conservative government led by Malcolm Turnbull says that programmes aimed at helping aboriginals must henceforth be “designed, developed and implemented in partnership” with them. New, state-level targets will be put in place this year. But indigenous campaigners complain that they have been sidelined. Furthermore, the country has spent years considering how to recognise aboriginals in its constitution. In 2015 a council was established to propose a specific change that could be put to a referendum. At the recommendation of aboriginal elders, it concluded that Australians should be asked whether to enshrine within the country’s founding law a “voice to parliament”, which would be an independent body that could give aboriginals at least some say in a government’s decision-making. The conservatives dismissed the idea as “not desirable”. They have formed yet another parliamentary committee to ruminate on the matter. Meanwhile the inequality persists.